Published: October 15th 2008September 22nd 2008
"Don't worry about your camera," the cleber, or witchdoctor, said. I had left it on a bus on my first day back in Port Vila. "Tonight I will send my spirit out of my body and walk around town. I will listen to every conversation and find out who has your camera. The only thing is that you yourself must not be outdoors this evening." She was a fat middle-aged lady in a long, dirty light red dress and with beady little eyes that darted here and there, never quite looking directly at me and leading me not to trust her as far as I could spit.
I had been led to this slum on the outskirts of Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, by Sam, having not fully understood who we were going to see. For a few minutes after the taxi had dropped us off we had picked our way between corrugated iron shacks, jumping over rivers of sewage and making our way along narrow alleyways that were little more than tiny gaps between houses. Most of the inhabitants were from other islands; having come to Vila in search of money and jobs they were then forced by greedy landlords to pay exorbitant rents for these places, rents that rendered life almost impossible for many of them.
Once there I had decided to hear this woman out: I was desperate and ready to clutch at straws. It was not the new, expensive camera I was worried about, but the hundreds of photos of Vanuatu that were stored on it along with an hour-long video of various aspects of the daily life of the inhabitants of Marakai. The cleber was just one of a large number of characters that I came to know in Port Vila during my hunt for that camera. The hunt lasted ten days - ten days that I had originally planned to spend on the island of Tanna.
That evening, depressed, I joined Sam in one of Vila's kava bars that evening, totally disregarding the cleber's instructions to stay inside. Sam, I and some others had already spent several days trapsing round this uninteresting, over-touristed town on the island of Efate. We had tried everything from anouncing rewards on radio stations, putting posters up all over town and simply talking to people on the street. Although I continued to search, deep down I had lost all hope. Port Vila is a town of around 35,000 and by now, every time I mentioned my lost camera to someone new, they had already heard about it. If anyone was going to give it back, they already would have.
The kava bar, situated on top of a hill and quite far from any other buildings, was about as far from my idea of a bar as it is possible to get while still actually being one. It had no walls, just several wooden posts holding up the high, thatched roof. Wooden planks were attached to these posts and ran the length of the place to serve as seats. The floor in between was bare earth. At one end was the only part of the whole structure that had walls - a tiny room behind a wooden counter where the bartender stood, scooping kava out of an enormous plastic container at his clients' requests. The whole place was virtually unlit and people sat or stood around in small groups either inside or outside the building, talking in lowered voices if not whispers. The behaviour of the drinkers was utterly different from what you would find late on a Saturday night in an English bar and at first glance would be more in tune with a particularly grim funeral. Still, the atmosphere was mellow and the people were friendly.
During the course of the evening I met a man called George who worked as a security guard at one of the hotels in town.
"My auntie is a spiritual woman," he told me, "not like these clebers. When I lost my mobile phone she prayed and found out where it was. She has helped many people like this."
Several other people in Vila had recommended things like this so finally I decided to give it a go. The next day I went to meet up with George in the shanty town where he lived. Again, for a few minutes, we burrowed deeper into the slum, past piles of rubbish, collapsing houses and vast families living in one room. Some sat outside cooking meals of rice, potatoes and greens, their eyes seemingly glued to us as we walked past, passing through their homes and lives for no more than a few seconds before disappearing again.
We arrived at the George's aunt's house. A couple of young, skinny children sat playing in the dust outside the front door. They froze and went silent as we approached. I waved and smiled, breaking the ice and causing their tiny faces to burst into smiles and laughter too. We knocked on the door and seconds later a huge old lady came. She had a lovely, homely face and a kindly voice; her whole manner was worlds different from the cleber I had previously visited.
I explained the problem to her along with the few leads we had, the main one being a security guard called Francois who, bizzarely, was from Bunlap, one of the villages I had recently stayed in on Pentecost island. He claimed to have found my camera on the bus and given it to the driver, although I had suspicions that he was just hoping for the reward I had promised for information leading to the retrieval of my camera.
"Ok, my friend," George's aunt said calmly, "right now I am not strong because I have back problems. I need the help of another to pray with me to find your camera." She turned to George. "When Uncle Toby comes, then we will find it."
Two days later I received word from her, through George. "Look to the Pentecost man," was the message. I was only marginally disappointed as I really had not expected much to com of it anyway. It later occurred to me what someone on Ambrym had once said to me: "Magic does not work on white people because they don't believe in it." Perhaps I should have given more credit to George's aunt and the cleber, but by now it was far too late.
Nevertheless I went to see Francois at his place of work. He told me a story about seeing the driver who had my camera today but said the driver had sped off upon seeing him. I felt sure he was lying and left pretty soon. I didn't feel bad towards him though - the reward I was offering was the value of my camera, which was probably two or three times his monthly salary. If you put temptation in people's way, you can't expect them not to take it.
I had by now lost contact with Sam. Neither of us had mobile phones and we had been meeting up simply by arranging a time and place every day. One day I had been late and I had never seen him again afterwards. I truly had nowhere to turn in the search for my camera and finally I gave up all hope. That evening I wasted a lot of money on pizza and beer in a restaurant.
So ended my time in Vanuatu - a month of fantastic memories only slightly marred by ten days of bad ones. I promised myself not to let it get me down - it was in the past and nothing could change it now. I consoled myself by saying that perhaps the lives of the people of Marakai were never meant to be revealed to the world.
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